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Delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly: Cambridge 2017

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 15 Jan 2018, 13:50

On Saturday 9 December, I facilitated a session at the Cambridge AL development conference that had the title: Delivering Excellent Correspondence Tuition Quickly: Is It Possible and How Do We Do It?

Here is a shortened version of the abstract that described the event:

Correspondence tuition takes a lot of time. Delivering excellent correspondence tuition is both an art and a challenge, but how can we try to deliver excellent correspondence quickly? This session is all about sharing experiences and uncovering correspondence tuition techniques to make things easier for ourselves. If you are a new tutor and would like to learn some useful tips and techniques, then do come along! If you are an experienced tutor and would like to share your experience with others, you will be especially welcome too! You will hopefully come away with an armoury of techniques that you can apply with your next TMA. An outcome of the session will be a useful resource that will be shared to everyone after the AL conference.

In some respects, this session trying to do two very important and seemingly opposing things: how to do excellent teaching as quickly as possible. I chose ‘speed’ as a focus since as a tutor I know how much time goes into preparing good correspondence tuition.

This blog post is intended to share a set of points that were created during the session; it is intended to the ‘that useful resource’ that might be useful for tutors.

Excellent correspondence tuition

  • TMA feedback should be, of course, useful!
  • Correspondence tuition should help students to move forward and to guide students towards improvements in their performance (and understanding)
  • Feedback should also guide students towards the next step of their studies.
  • Importantly, feedback should acknowledge what has been done well.
  • Correspondence tuition should include examples, potentially provide a concrete goal which students could aim for, it should be motivating and treat the student as a person. 
  • Comments on a TMA should provide explanations for the mark that has been given and also link back to learning outcomes that have been defined within a module; comments should have a purpose.
  • The tone that is used should be personal, conversational, engage with what a student has written and submitted, and offer encouragement.
  • It should help students to learn by broadening out or extending the context by applying existing knowledge.
  • For some modules, encourage students to use diagrams (which can be a way to efficiently share an understanding of key module concepts); some modules encourage the use of tables.
  • Enhance understanding of module materials by encouraging students to think about how module concepts relate to their own lives and their work.
  • Present feedforward (student guidance) in small increments; consider limiting advice to three things that can be improved or worked on.
  • When faced with a challenging TMA, suggest one thing that a student should continue to do for the next TMA.
  • Refer to forthcoming TMAs in the current TMA to show how assessments can be connected.
  • Refer student to skills for study website and other pages that might be helpful on their student home page.

Marking strategies

  • Take time to read through the tutor notes.
  • From a practical perspective, make sure that you have access to lots of tea.
  • Read through past TMAs as a guide.
  • Consider looking through all TMAs briefly to get an idea of the submissions.
  • Mark a good TMA first to build up confidence and understanding.
  • Return to students in batches and set student expectations in terms of when marks will be returned.

Biggest tips

Towards the end of the session, I asked everyone to share their biggest tips to a new tutor. This is (roughly) what everyone said:

  • Prepare a comment template which you can heavily customise for the needs of individual students.
  • Don’t agonise over individual marks, i.e. ‘should this get 3 marks or 4 marks?’; choose a mark (using your gut instinct, as informed by your knowledge of the module materials) and move on (since there are lots of marks to allocate!
  • Be friendly and approachable! 
  • Don’t get into the trap of spending 3 hours to mark every TMA; there lies madness.
  • Use a timer to see how long you’re spending on each script. 
  • Focus on three things that can be improved or developed.
  • Highlight important parts of scripts using green/yellow highlights.
  • Make sure that you spellcheck the PT3 summary.
  • Ask your mentor for advice.
  • Draw on a bank of handouts; sections can be copied into a script to provide feedback, or additional documents can be returned through the ETMA system.
  • Consider using a spreadsheet to keep track of student marks and your interaction with students.
  • Provide an action plan for students and offer a summary.
  • Print out a copy of the tutor notes so you have it to hand (and add your own comments to it!)
  • Provide references to the Good Study Guide book.
  • Ensure that correspondence tuition is always personalised to the needs of individual students. 

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AL development conference: Moller Centre, Cambridge, 2017

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The keynote speech for the Cambridge AL development conference was given by Olympian Gail Emms  (Wikipedia), who I understand is also an OU honorary graduate. Gail was introduced by Toby Scott-Hughes, head of ALSPD (I think that is his title!)

Gail set the tone of the conference by telling us all about her story; a journey from playing badminton in dusty sports halls, to winning an Olympic medal in Athens. Although Gail’s talk didn’t directly connect to academic ambitions, but her words certainly did connect to important themes that will be familiar to many students and tutors: the temptation to put difficult challenges to one side, the importance of practice, and the subject of failure. 

A point that I noted down was: ‘losing is where we learn the most’.  A personal reflection is what I can apply this to a teaching situation: we can learn more when a lesson goes wrong than a lesson that is perfectly planned and executed. This, of course, is linked to that familiar notion of the ‘comfort zone’.

STEM Faculty Session

The STEM AL development group had organised a series of AL development sessions that were designed for all members of the STEM faculty. The aim of the session was to give tutors an update about changes that were happening within the faculty and across the university. During this session, I played a small role in a STEM faculty session, helping to facilitate a discussion that may have been about the subject of retention. C&C Session. Other staff tutors played different roles; offering information and update, and facilitating different discussions. I remember that there was a lot of talk about, since the university is currently considering how to approach further restructuring.

Computing and Communication School Session

The next session I was playing a part in was the School of Computing and Communications workshop. This session was open to all tutors who teach on computing and IT modules, but other tutors who were interested in tutoring for modules that were designed by this school were (of course) also very welcome to attend.

Sue Truby introduced the session by sharing some diagrams that neatly summarised the various Computing and IT degree programmes whilst also sharing information about forthcoming curriculum updates.

One area that is of particular interest is the subject of Cybersecurity. The university has made a strategic decision to invest in this area. Further investment exposes the question: what can tutors do to increase their knowledge, understanding and skills in a particular area. Sharon Dawes and I told tutors about a number of different resources that may them to understand the principles of the subject. They key resources that were shared are summarised on a short cybersecurity post that can be found in this blog.

If I remember correctly, the final part of the session was all about how to best apply for different modules. Sharon had selected a series of application forms for associate lecturer posts that had been submitted by tutors, along with a copy of a module person specification. The tutors had to make a decision as to whether each candidate should be shortlisted for interview. I felt this final activity was really useful. It helped to make a really important point: make things as clear as possible for the recruiter by ensuring that applicants offer compelling evidence against each point on the person specification. 

Correspondence Tuition Session

The third session I was involved with had the title ‘delivering excellent correspondence tuition quickly’. I had previously delivered this session at the Leicester AL development conference and my overriding memory of that session was that although I ran a good session about what was meant by ‘excellent correspondence tuition’, I unfortunately ran out of time, which meant that I couldn’t explore the ‘quickly’ bit as much as I had hoped! I was certain that I would do better this time and not make the same mistake again.

This session attracted over twenty tutors and what struck me was that everyone was very willing to speak and contribute to the questions of ‘what do we mean by excellent correspondence tuition?’ and ‘how can we prepare correspondence tuition in a way that is efficient?’

One of the objectives of the session was to make a set of notes that I could share with our colleagues in ALSPD. During the discussions, I made use of a flip char and have attempted to summarise all contributions in a blog post that follows this one. The blog tag ‘correspondence tuition’ may also be useful, offering a number of useful resources.

Reflections

A personal reflection is that different parts of the conference had a very different tone. I found the STEM session to have a slightly negative tone, and one of the reasons might be due to the messages that we were sharing from the university are, in themselves, quite challenging. 

Everyone in the university has been subjected to a lot of changes; regional centres have closed, the group tuition policy has been introduced, higher fees has caused changes to the student population, and technology has changed too. Given all these changes, the message that there are going to be further changes perhaps (understandably) didn’t go down too well. One of our job as staff tutors and associate lecturer developers is to find ways to help associate lecturers understand and work with those changes. Clearly there is a lot more that we need to do to make things easier.

I found the school session fun and helpful. AL development conferences always used to be opportunities to allow staff tutors meet with the tutors that they support and line manage; the school session was clearly one of the highlights. Whilst the STEM session felt a little abstract and broad, the school session had a real positive sense of community about it. Tutors were sharing subject specific practice tips with each other, and the emphasis on the degree programmes helped tutors to understand how the module that they taught related to other modules.

My personal highlight of the conference was the session on correspondence tuition. Correspondence tuition sounds like a very dry (but important) topic, but this session was anything but. Everyone in the room seemed to have opinions; experienced tutors were sharing their experiences with tutors who had just joined the university three months earlier. An achievement was that I didn’t run out of time; there was enough time to talk about not just what is meant by correspondence tuition and to share tips about how to perform marking efficiently. A useful bit of feedback that I received was that it was helpful to share something about teaching research that had been performed into the subject. This is something that I will certainly take on board when I work on other presentations in the future.

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